One of the posits of Zaltaesque object theory (let's call it that, since there is something vaguely Kafkaesque about logicist realism) is that for every set of assertible encoding relations there is an abstract object that does encode from that set. There is, for example, a round square in the sense that there is abstract object that encodes "being round" and "being square," but this object does not exemplify those two properties jointly, because the exemplification relation sustains exclusive negation.

Perhaps even more oddly, there's an option where there are contingently abstract objects. So suppose that such things are admissible such that we can proclaim the existence of an abstract object that encodes "being an obligation" and "being a contingently abstract object." More finely, gerrymander the Lovecraftian horror of "being an obligation to have the given abstract object be concrete." That is, we imagine that there could be such an awful thing as an obligation to turn some contingently abstract object into a concrete one (or to turn a concrete one into an abstract one!), and the bare conception of this property then must be encoded by some abstract object (since at least one exists for every abstract, encodable property), which means that there would in fact be a contingently abstract object that generates an obligation to make it concrete (or abstract).

Now, waiving the stark absurdity of the above as a disclaimer, is it troubling even internally to the theory of Zaltaesque objects that such an obligation would exist? Can this weird thesis really be inferred from the generally intended meaning of that theory? I admit, it is hard to see how we would be changing abstract (or concrete) objects in a physics-minded sense, but the other option—that there is a standing order for every contingently abstract object, that it either be in the state that it is in or that it be in some other state, with the "decision" of which state it's actually in then either in permanent compliance with or permanent defiance of the coupled imperative—is hardly more appealing to say out loud. Perhaps Kant's talk of timeless choices yet succeeding each other by appearance over time might be adapted to the option, though (there would be (at least) one contingently abstract object that should be concrete and a contingently concrete object that should be concrete, and the initial (atemporal) sin (radical evil) "was" a failure to choose that the one object be in its intended state but our redemption (the "revolution in our hearts") concerns the pure choice to hold the other should-be-concrete object fast).

But here, we run the risk of overcomplicating the radical-evil thesis even worse than Kant did with his noetic levels (the animality-rationality-personality distinction), which themselves already seem in peril of trespassing upon the "unexplainability" factor with respects to noumenal dynamics (especially when equipped with the even more subtle distinction between Wille and Willkür). Regardless, then, however, do the principles from Zalta that are invoked, here, establish the bizarre object in question, becoming candidates for something like a moment of ante rem moral realism even if not contributing substantially (at all!) to reasoning about strictly concrete moral questions?

  • This is an unclear stream of consciousness with 4 different vague questions. You do seem to have a point here, but why not try to communicate in as simple and clear a manner as you can? Embellishing and obscuring something simple does not make it deep. Anyway, yes, Zalta would say there is an object that "encodes" the properties of "being an obligation to have an abstract object be concrete." But because this object does not "exemplify" those properties, they aren't empirically real, and so the object does not impose any real obligation on humans.
    – causative
    Jul 22 at 7:49
  • @causative I don't see how it would profit anyone to talk about things as bizarre as contingently abstract obligations with possible moral significance, in a simpler way (or: I don't share your intuition about the complexity of my description, which doesn't seem specifically more or less complex than it should(?) be). One of the directives when we ask questions is to show how we've tried to apply stuff in working on the question, so like bringing up an attempt to interpret Kant so as to apply the idea of the question is showing how I tried to attach some sense to the bizarre original terms. Jul 22 at 8:22
  • I would think that it would be like, "If X ought to be concrete, then X can be concrete," but also "then whether X is concrete is chosen, so it is contingent," and then if we happened upon some concrete object and could know that it ought to be so, then we would know that a decision had been made that somehow ended up with this object being concrete when it could've been abstract. This roughly sounds like the way the inverted order on abstract maxims is situated "around" corrupt empirical maxims in Kant's theory of radical evil. Jul 22 at 8:34
  • What motivates the question, besides just it having occurred to you? What would the result achieve for someone?
    – Scott Rowe
    Jul 22 at 14:11
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    @ScottRowe I was wondering if one way to approach the realism/fictionalism debate in ethics would be to hold that some ethical claims are meant to be "realist," most (by far) are fictionalist, and then the few realist ones end up being either trivial/formal/conditional or "bizarre," and so I wonder if Zalta's metaphysics would support a candidate for a bizarre realism-flavored ethical claim. Jul 22 at 16:37

1 Answer 1


From my perspective, this line of metaphysical speculation seems far removed from the reality-based investigation of ethics. Debating abstract philosophical puzzles about possible but unfalsifiable objects strikes me as a misguided approach to moral reasoning.

We should be skeptical of claims about strange ontological entities like "contingently abstract obligations" when there is no evidence they actually exist or impact human well-being. Toying with logic does not get us closer to understanding morality.

True moral progress comes from grappling with the actual causes of human and animal suffering, not theoretical abstractions. Philosophy can clarify moral questions, but not answer them apart from science, psychology and history.

Rather than get lost in conceptual labyrinths, we should focus ethical debate on identifiable individual and societal harms, their tangible roots, and authentic ways to prevent them through compassion and justice.

At the end of the day, moral reality is about conscious creatures, their capacity for empathy, and objective facts concerning their thoughts and behaviors in this world. Speculation about platonic forms or possible worlds has little relevance. We must be wary not to confuse thinking for understanding.

In summary, while intellectual creativity has a place, we must remain grounded in common sense and empiricism when it comes to ethics. Moral progress depends on elevating human wisdom and cooperation, not debating esoteric metaphysics. Our shared well-being should be the north star.

  • I have upvoted this for taking it as a legitimate challenge to my question itself, i.e. the post makes points about the topic that would need to be addressed in order for the challenge to be met. On my side of this, though, I have a whole slew of ideas like the question is based on, and what's interesting is that a lot of it can help with nontrivial evaluations in ethics, like it provides a way to decide some general issues fairly well. If people should be free to study what they want, then if someone wants to study abstract objects for ethics' sake, is that not morally good itself? Jul 23 at 17:02

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